Forgotten Voices from the Great War, What the Women Did

1914 and the Great War. Given the centenary is upon us, it is everywhere. And perhaps rightly so although heaven knows, there is enough mayhem still going on in the world for us to wonder whether anything has been learnt from past history.

Be that as it may, a decade ago, a small theatre company, Two’s Company, began a journey of resurrecting neglected voices and plays from WW1. In 2004 in the old Southwark Playhouse off Southwark Bridge Road, a trio of plays suddenly came to light under the umbrella title of What the Women Did – three plays that focussed on the lives of women back home, at the Home Front. They were quietly irresistible, each tale packing its own powerful punch.

Ten years on, this revival at the latest Southwark Playhouse venue in Borough Road shows the plays still resonate, maybe more so in the ten years that have seen British soldiers once more sent to the front. Once again the plays amaze by unearthing uncomfortable truths still kept from public view today: the effect on wives of lost or injured husbands; the demonization and dehumanising of the enemy; and the part fantasy and wish fulfilment can play, perhaps even more so in times of stress.

Certainly worth seeing again, of the three – Luck of War, Handmaidens of Death and The Old Lady Shows Her Medals – it is Maude Deuchar’s Handmaidens of Death (written in 1918 under the pseudonym of Herbert Tremaine) that most impresses. Centred around a group of munition factory girls (known as `canary girls’ because of the jaundiced colouring working with TNT caused), Deuchar sharply conveys the class divisions apparent even under such levelling working conditions. But sharpest of all is her imaginative twist. Lacking men-folk, the girls send their shells off with love notes and names attached. In a late flash, those same German men – all called `Fritz’ – return as ghosts to their `loved’ ones.

Tricia Thorns, Two’s Company’s director, handles this moment of realisation and responsibility to perfection as cigarettes flare in the darkness and the grey-green faces are caught for just a second.

Gwen John’s Luck of War (first performed in 1917 under the hand of Edith Craig and her partner, Christopher St John aka Christabel Marshall) too presents a potent reminder of war’s more unseen personal tragedies when an injured solider returns to the domestic hearth to find his wife remarried having been assumed dead.
Conveyed with truthful simplicity, John’s dramatic twist shows the second husband magnanimously giving way and is beautifully performed by Matthew Cottle with Simon Darwen adding poignancy to Victoria Gee’s despairing wife.

Darwen also turns up in J M Barrie’s The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, a typical but surprisingly successful piece of whimsy on the party of Peter Pan’s creator on the idea of `mothering’. A childless Scottish char-lady `adopts’ an anonymous Black Watch soldier only to find him arriving one day on her doortstep, for real. Susan Wooldridge and Darwen build up a fine head of comic steam in an evening that combines remembrance with insight as surely as it does entertainment. Recommended.